2.12: Christianity and Early Medieval Culture

Life of Jesus

The life of Jesus began in north and central Palestine, a region between the Dead Sea and the Jordan River in the east and the Eastern Mediterranean in the west. This region was under Roman control since the 1st century BCE, initially as a tributary kingdom. The Roman campaigns, coupled with internal revolts and the incursion of the Parthians, made the region very unstable and chaotic up until 37 BCE, when Herod the Great (c.73 BCE-4 BCE) became king. The region gradually gained political stability and became prosperous. Although Jewish in religion, Herod was a vassal king who served the interests of the Roman Empire. Jesus was born towards the end of the reign of Herod the Great (died 4 BCE) and brought up in Nazareth, Galilee. He was named Jesus (Yeshu’a in Aramaic, Yehoshua or Joshua in Hebrew, Iesous in Greek, Iesus in Roman) and was conceived between the engagement and marriage of his parents whose names were Mary (Miriam in Hebrew and Mariam in Aramaic) and Joseph (Yossef in Hebrew, Yosep in Aramaic). In Matthew 13.55 it is said that his father was a carpenter, and Mark 6.3 says that this was also Jesus’ profession. It was a common practice during that time that sons would follow their father’s occupation, so it would be safe to believe that Jesus was a carpenter. Although not certain, it is probable that Jesus’ education included a detailed study of the Hebrew Scriptures, a very common practice among the devout poor in Israel. His public ministry began after being baptized by John the Baptist. According to the gospel of Luke, this was when Jesus was about 30 years of age. According to Mark (11.27-33), Jesus saw John the Baptist as an authority and possibly a source of inspiration. It seems that he performed baptisms parallel to John the Baptist (John 3.22). After the arrest of John the Baptist (Mark 1.14), Jesus began a new kind of ministry, spreading the message of the kingdom of God approaching and stressing the importance of repentance by the people of Israel.

The oldest known icon depicting Jesus Christ (6th century) in Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Egypt. In this image, Jesus grasps a New Testament in his left arm while making a symbol for peace with two right fingers. Also notable here is that Jesus eyes are of different color, with his brown iris dominating far more of his left eye than his right eye.

Jesus was heavily influenced by the prophet Isaiah, who considered the coming of the reign of God a central topic (Isa. 52.7). Many of Jesus’ teachings have allusions to Isaiah, and he also quotes him on many occasions. Jesus is presented as an eschatological prophet announcing the definitive coming of God, its salvation, and the end of time.

Jesus gradually gained popularity and thousands of followers are mentioned in the gospels. He shared some attributes with the Pharisees and the Essenes, two of the Jewish sects at that time. Like the Pharisees, his teaching methods included the expression of thoughts about the human condition in the form of aphorisms and parables, and he also shared the belief in the genuine authority of Hebrew sacred scriptures. Unlike the Pharisaic teachers, Jesus believed that outward compliance with the law was not of utmost importance and that values such as the love for enemies were more important.

Moreover, Jesus summed up his ethical views in the double command concerning love: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Mark 12.28-31; Matthew 22.35-40 and Luke 10.25-28). The Essenes had a very simple way of life, a pacifist spirit, common ownership of property, common meals, they practiced exorcisms, and they stressed the love for each other, all practices seen in the ministry of Jesus.

At some point towards the end of his career, Jesus moved to Jerusalem in Judea, reaching the climax of his public life. Here he engaged in different disputes with his many adversaries. At the same time, some religious authorities were seeking to entrap him into self-incrimination by raising controversial topics, mostly of a theological nature. The gospels offer different reasons as to why the Sanhedrin (the Jewish court) was interested in executing Jesus, but only John (11.47-53) seems convincing enough: Jesus was seen as a trouble-maker who threatened public harmony.

A Roman intervention to restore order, thus breaking the fine balance between Jewish and Roman power, did not interest the Sanhedrin. An arresting party finally took Jesus to the Sanhedrin, where he was judged, found guilty of blasphemy, and condemned to death. However, the execution order had to be issued by a Roman authority; the Jewish court did not have such power at that time. Therefore, Jesus was brought to the procurator of Rome who ordered Jesus’ execution. Because Jesus never denied the charges, he should have been convicted and not executed, as the Roman law required in case of confession for such a penalty. On a hill outside Jerusalem, Jesus was finally crucified and killed, which was not a Jewish form of punishment but a common Roman practice.

The Early Christian Movement

Following Jesus’ death, the Christian religion continued to flourish. This was in large part due to missionaries like the apostle Paul who successfully reshaped the religion, making it more Greco-Roman in orientation than Jewish. Indeed, playing down the importance of circumcision and pork abstinence, Paul was able to make the budding faith more palatable to a Gentile audience. Emphasizing themes such as life-after-death and personal redemption, Paul promoted Christianity in terms not unlike those promoted by the various mystery religions of the day. As such, Christianity became a competitor for converts within a very crowded religious marketplace.

Stone etching of St. Peter and St. Paul. Some attempt at realism is present here. Indeed, the illustrator has endeavored to distinguish the two bearded men from one another by figuring their heads differently. Peter possess a round shape head while Paul’s head is more oval in orientation.

From the Roman point of view, they initially identified Christianity as a sect of the Jewish religion. As Christian believers became increasingly Gentile in orientation, however, practitioners of the faith became a problem for Roman rulers. Around the year 98, Nerva decreed that Christians — unlike the Jews — would no longer be able to pay a tax in order to absolve themselves from demonstrating devotion to the Roman gods. This opened the way to the persecutions of Christians for disobedience to the emperor, as many refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods and the emperor. Thus, members of the Early Christian movement often became political targets and scapegoats for the social ills and political tensions of specific rulers and turbulent periods during the first three centuries, CE; however, this persecution was sporadic and rarely Empire-wide, but it was devastating, nonetheless.

The so-called Great Persecution — during the reign of Diocletian — was the last and most severe persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. This lasted from 302-311 CE. By this point, however, the Emperor’s sweeping endeavor to wipe out the religion proved an impossibility as Christians comprised upwards of ten percent of the Roman population. In the end, the persecution failed to check the rise of the church. By 324, Constantine was sole ruler of the empire, and Christianity had become his favored religion.

Read this excerpt of Romans 5 (1-11) from the Bible:

  1. Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ:
  2. By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
  3. And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience;
  4. And patience, experience; and experience, hope:
  5. And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.
  6. For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.
  7. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die.
  8. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
  9. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.
  10. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.
  11. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.

Constantine’s Relationship with Christianity

While the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great reigned (306-337 CE), Christianity began to transition to the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. Historians remain uncertain about Constantine’s reasons for favoring Christianity, and theologians and historians have argued about which form of Early Christianity he subscribed to. There is no consensus among scholars as to whether he adopted his mother Helena’s Christianity in his youth, or (as claimed by Eusebius of Caesarea) encouraged her to convert to the faith himself. Some scholars question the extent to which he should be considered a Christian emperor: “Constantine saw himself as an ’emperor of the Christian people.’ If this made him a Christian is the subject of debate,” although he allegedly received a baptism shortly before his death.Constantine’s decision to cease the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire was a turning point for early Christianity, sometimes referred to as the Triumph of the Church, the Peace of the Church, or the Constantinian Shift. In 313, Constantine and Licinius issued the Edict of Milan, decriminalizing Christian worship. The emperor became a great patron of the Church and set a precedent for the position of the Christian emperor within the Church, and the notion of orthodoxy, Christendom, ecumenical councils, and the state church of the Roman Empire, declared by edict in 380. He is revered as a saint and is an apostle in the Eastern Orthodox Church and Oriental Orthodox Church for his example as a “Christian monarch.”

Christianity After Constantine

After Constantine, the Christianization of the Roman Empire would continue apace. Under Theodosius I (r. 378-395), Christianity became the state religion. By the 5th century, Christianity was the empire’s predominant faith, and filled the same role paganism had at the end of the 3rd century. Because of the persecution, however, a number of Christian communities were driven between those who had complied with imperial authorities (traditores) and those who had refused. In Africa, the Donatists, who protested the election of the alleged traitor, Caecilian, to the bishopric of Carthage, continued to resist the authority of the central church until after 411. The Melitians in Egypt left the Egyptian Church similarly divided.